Anyone with enthusiasm for wine eventually ends up at wine tastings, and over time that will include a trip to Napa Valley. Or a dozen.
Diane and I first went to Napa in the days when tastings were free and it wasn’t so commercialized. My mother, my mother-in-law, my wife’s sister and brother and their spouses — they all enjoyed the Napa day trip when they first visited from afar.
But recently I wondered, who should make an appointment for a tasting at one of the more exclusive wineries? What would that experience be like? What would it cost, and what should you infer when you see this phrase on a winery website: By appointment only.
A chef arranged appointments for Diane and me at three such wineries, all in the St. Helena area, so I could find out. The chef carries their wines; they reciprocate by readily welcoming individuals he might send their way.
It was the week before Christmas. We were the only guests at each. And each, I might add, has a link to UC Davis, arguably the world’s premier training school for winemakers.
We started on Howell Mountain, just northeast of St. Helena. We’d never been there, and the discovery was a delight as we drove along.
Ladera Winery is high on Howell Mountain. We proceeded through an opened metal gate and parked in an empty gravel lot. We made our way to an impressive stone building with large stainless steel tanks. “Hello?” I called. No one answered. A large rug and a propane space heater stood before a small tasting bar in a corner. It was chilly.
I called their office; Natalie promptly appeared. It seems I should have announced myself on the speaker system outside the gate so she could have greeted us personally, but I’d just blazed in. Obviously, I wasn’t a veteran of private tastings.
A husband-and-wife team bought the old stone winery, built in 1886, and did quite a job renovating it. Today they bottle 10,000 cases a year, and upon release, it’s ready to drink — “every day” wine, Natalie said.
We tasted their 2008 signature cabernet and two cab blends. The Morton’s steakhouse chain carries their wines. A blend was $41, while their cab was $75. Diane loved the $25 sauvignon blanc, their only white.
Private appointments, yes, but this winery has a very open attitude. The $15 tasting fee is waived if you buy a bottle of wine. Private appointments avoid curiosity seekers and the tour buses. Ladera also offers a two-hour estate tour that ends with wine and charcuterie at outside tables.
A good choice, I thought, for the casual wine person, or taking your parents around, but in a warmer time of year. I could see it as a welcome alternative to the madcap environment at the popular wineries in the valley.
Viader, a few miles lower on the mountain, is for the wine aficionado. We announced ourselves at the gate, which swung open, and we wove under tree cover and parked (again, the only car) by a stone tasting-building with a stunning view of the valley below. Canti welcomed us, and we spent an hour chatting at a table as we tasted. A long appointment is customary, I’m told.
“UC Davis uses us for student testing,” Canti said. “Some days I’ll come in and there will be UCD trucks and students.” The owner, Delia Viader, made a decision to grow grapes on a very steep slope without terracing. It’s one of many unique aspects of Viader, whose owner has a number of graduate degrees, including one from the UCD wine program.
Their wines ranged from a tempranillo ($40) for Mediterranean cuisine to cabernet sauvignons over $100, including a 2008 that we rated the best of the day, but that’s a matter of taste. A few tables in the trees just outside overlooked the valley far below. At $45 to taste, it’s considerable, but the experience got a full complement of stars for feeling exclusive. A $100 purchase negates a fee.
This financial altitude has rarefied air. But for one who has the disposable income, this would make for a very special date for a wine lover, or a memorable place to take a relative who’s a wine aficionado to mark an anniversary or big birthday. You can pick up a lunch in St. Helena and enjoy it overlooking the world, Canti said, and you’ll probably be by yourselves.
On to Crocker Starr, on the southern end of St. Helena. No sign! After circling (despite using Google Map) and a phone call, we turned at an everyday aluminum mailbox bearing the correct street number. (This was nothing like the very public wineries on the valley floor, with their eminent signs.) “Appointment necessary” allowed Crocker Starr to hide from roving eyes.
Mark, who works in sales, came out to greet us in the small gravel parking area. A remarkable soul, really, who worked with wayward teenage boys for many years in St. Louis. Tip of the hat, and I told him, after hearing his story.
Acres of vines abounded, and a small, nondescript house. Talk about low-key. Turns out it’s on the historic register as the only redwood pre-Prohibition house in St. Helena, and it had been subtly restored. Crocker and Starr — two people who own the winery — are all about organic and reuse, exemplified by the secondhand plastic wind screens on the porch from the neighboring Tra Vigne restaurant.
Production is low, at 1,600 to 2,300 cases annually. A remarkable 80 percent of their releases go to a mailing list or their wine club, with 15 percent to restaurants. Some goes to charitable events, such as the big Make-A-Wish Wine and Food extravaganza held in Sacramento every winter.
Their wines do sell out. Veteran winemaker Pam Starr has a fermentation science degree from UC Davis and has her fans. In late December, their primary Bourdeaux-style wines were no longer available except in non-traditional sizes.
Mark did have some for visitors to taste, however, so we retreated to a hidden-away, cave-like building, very intimate and well-lit. It’s their customary place for guests. Again it was a leisurely tasting — nothing like the mainstream wineries where every five minutes it’s on to something different. Mark regaled us with tales about shipping wine that were alternately hilarious and ingenious.
Crocker Starr offers noteworthy cabernet sauvignons, with cabernet franc in play as well. Prices reach triple figures, not a casual buy. A $30 individual tasting fee is waived with the purchase of three bottles; two tastings are waived if you join their wine club.
Disclaimer: For people in the food industry or sent by restaurants, tasting fees are often waived, as ours were at all three wineries. Regardless, a private tasting is just that: You and your group, typically by yourselves, and the experience is leisurely. After I described our experience, an insider indicated it was no different from that accorded to wine enthusiasts generally.
Who should go? Wine enthusiasts might treat themselves for a special occasion. To the extent that cost comes into play, consider value as an alternative to something else. I have friends who would scoff that a private tasting is extravagant, but they re-up their 49er tickets, restore old cars as a hobby or prize their series tickets at the Mondavi Center.
If you have out-of-town visitors, including at least one person who’s a wine enthusiast, consider a foursome at a private tasting with a lunch (less expensive) in Napa rather than taking them out to dinner.
Surely some will send emails reminding me that “appointment only” wineries can be found closer to home. Visit them, by all means. This is simply one alternative.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at email@example.com